Hymns and Myths, Homeric and Modern
By Stu O’Connor
Rough and Rowdy Ways by Bob Dylan
Columbia Records. Release date: 19 June 2020
* * * * * (out of five)
One can never count Bob Dylan out—ever. I went to see him at The Tower Theater in Upper Darby in the fall of 2017, fully expecting to write him off as old, crippled, and irrelevant. My primary mission for attending the show was to check out opening act Mavis Staples, who did not disappoint. However, when the lights went down and Dylan strode onstage, he looked about ten years younger than his age, his voice sounded cleaner and more melodic than on the recent versions of Frank Sinatra recordings he’d been exploring, and his band was as sharp as a Great White’s teeth. They thoroughly chewed up the audience that night, as they ran through the paces of a set with brand new arrangements. I remember sitting, stunned, as he sat at the piano and played a pitch-perfect “Desolation Row,” one of the songs I’d never heard him play live, and I’ve seen him a number of times.
Fast forward to June 2020. The world is spiraling in a widening gyre: COVID 19 lockdowns, economic cataclysm, and rioters and protestors in the streets. It’s enough to make one nostalgic for the sixties. And even though Dylan hated the term “Spokesman for his Generation,” here comes his latest album, spewing fire and mythologies in every direction, gladdening us that we still have this national treasure with us, and that he’s still got the chops to show us “which way the wind blows.” But let me qualify that whole sixties thing by saying his more recent work, since 1996’s Time Out of Mind, has been every bit as good as, if not better than, his work in the sixties. There’s a maturity and reflective quality to it that, in my book anyway, exceeds the anthemic folk songs and the Beat-inspired, amphetamine-laced frenzy that caused Dylan to crash—both literally and figuratively—in 1966.
Rough and Rowdy Ways is Bob Dylan’s first album of original music in eight years, and his 38th studio album (actually, around his 80th, counting studio, live, compilation, and “Bootleg Series” issues). The title is an allusion to an old Jimmy Reed album, to which Dylan pays tribute in the song “Goodbye Jimmy Reed.” Additionally, it’s the same title as an older album of early Americana (1920s and 1930s) released in 1998 on Yazoo Records, well known for tipping their hat to the very best in early American roots recordings. From the initial release of three tracks from the album, several weeks ago—“Murder Most Foul,” “I Contain Multitudes,” and “False Prophet”—it wasn’t clear (to me, at least) what Mr. Dylan was getting at. The tracks sounded great, especially “False Prophet,” but, with limited information, it was hard to draw a bead on his thinking at that time. With the release of the full album on June 19th, there’s no more speculation necessary. Bob Dylan does indeed “contain multitudes” on this album.
First, the basics. The writing and playing on this two-disc outing are razor sharp, after eight years of Dylan’s Sinatra and American Songbook explorations. He has definitely not lost his touch. One highlight is the great Charlie Sexton’s guitar work. A player capable of setting the guitar frets on fire, here Sexton sticks to tasteful and understated lines, even on the rougher blues tracks, which fits Dylan’s reflective lyrics and thoughtful melodies well. Dylan has progressed—even as he nears octogenarian status—as both a lyricist and as a melodic composer. The melodies are refined, smooth, and bittersweet, as Dylan leisurely but intentionally guides us through his thoughts. As a special treat, Fiona Apple makes a surprise appearance, which only adds to the power of the music.
And how about those lyrics? Dylan is in mature form—which brings to mind writers like Pablo Neruda, who worked well into his old age, full of insight and expressive language. On this album, Dylan does a lot of name-dropping, which is not new for him, but it seemed a bit out of place and awkwardly intentional when “Murder Most Foul” and “I Contain Multitudes” first landed on the net. The first impression was that he was attempting a more sophisticated version of John Fogerty’s nostalgic “I Saw It on TV.” In the context of the full album, though, it becomes more apparent that Dylan has bigger fish to fry here. He reminds us, through the lyrics loaded with allusions to both contemporary culture and the literary and historical settings of the long-lost past, that he has seen it all.
The blues tunes on this collection shine, as always with Dylan’s blues innovations. One can accuse him of many things, but failure to do his homework is not one of them. He pays homage to the purity of the old blues players with a religious reverence:
Jimmy Reed, Jimmy Reed indeed,
Gimme that old time religion,
That’s just what I need.
That song, “Goodbye, Jimmy Reed,” in addition to extolling the virtues of old blues players, pokes fun at the show-biz aspects of the modern blues circuit. In it, Dylan throws a few (not so) veiled punches:
You won’t amount to much, the people all said,
’Cause I didn’t play guitar behind my head.
Never pandered, never acted proud,
Never took off my shoes, threw ’em to the crowd.
Dylan is obviously taking a shot here at the stage antics of Jimi Hendrix and other guitar slingers and alludes to the bare-footed Robert Plant singing for Led Zeppelin. The Blues, for Bob Dylan, have always been a pure art, and we see his disapproval for those turning it into a cheap sideshow act or anything else that may undermine the music’s raw, emotional immediacy. He’s seen it all, he continually reminds us, and he’s no prophet, but he knows what’s real.
In the two contrasting tunes “Mother of Muses” and “Crossing the Rubicon,” Dylan gets into full mythic gear, supplicating the Muses, including Calliope, to help him tell his tale. In what could certainly be considered an allusion to his Nobel Prize Speech (definitely worth a listen: https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/literature/2016/dylan/lecture/), where Dylan waxed admiringly about the poet Homer. Dylan gets in a little Classical Greek and Roman action, writing it, as he does with near everything he does, with finesse. Homer would nod his approval at Dylan’s invocation in this wistful hymn to the Muse. The heavy blues piece “Crossing the Rubicon” rings with the power of Dylan’s blues-infused 1965–66 era work. He contrasts the tender beauty of “Mother of Muses” with another aspect of Homer’s classic bag of tricks: warrior-culture taunts. The blues medium is perfect for the analogy, as he throws down lines that would be suitable for Achilles and Hector as they squared off on the plains of Troy:
I’ll make your wife a widow,
You’ll never see old age.
Through this boasting, Dylan again reminds us to take responsibility for ourselves and the consequences of our actions, as his references take on ever more gravity, including allusions to Dante’s Divine Comedy, in addition to classic Greek and Roman myth:
I abandoned all hope, and I crossed the Rubicon.
Or, when he finds himself:
Three miles north of Purgatory, one step from the grave beyond . . .
Dylan, at the height of his writing prowess, is throwing everything he can muster at the listener, and it works, as he reminds us all of our mortality, the difficulties of life, and the limited time we have on this mortal coil.
One final note. The last song on the first disc, “Key West (Philosopher Pirate),” takes the listener on an imagistic stroll through the natural wonders of Key West. In the process, Dylan ignores the obvious—there are no references to Ernest Hemingway or Jimmy Buffett. Instead, he makes a lovely point about the beauty of our natural world, our good fortune to spend some time here, and the inevitable decline and death that we all must face. Dylan turns this tune into everything other than what I expected when I first saw the title. And that, indeed, is why Dylan is Dylan. There is no pandering, no compromise, and there are no punches pulled in his work. He invites the listener into Paradise to stare into the abyss with him, and it seems a great privilege to do so.
The final take-away from this album? It’s one of Dylan’s best, and surely Dylan, as Ben Jonson said of Shakespeare, is “one for the ages.” The depth and complexity of the juxtapositions of contemporary myths (JFK, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, poets great and small) with Classical myth (Calliope, Homer, the Muses, the Rubicon) and everything in between (William Blake) makes clear several things. First, there is no “golden” era when all was well and we were happy, and, secondly, life is “rough and rowdy”—we should jump in swinging, win a few, lose a few, and get used to it. In addition, remain true to yourself and work in a vein of authenticity, as this will enable you to look yourself in the mirror at the end of the day—or at the end of your life. This is a noble, nuanced, and insightful philosophical message from one of our greats, delivered with strength, beauty, and ambiguity in a time when we need it. God bless Bob Dylan.
Photo by Weston MacKinnon (Minneapolis MN).
Stu O’Connor is an educator, musician, and poet who has spent his life dedicated to the power of the word, the necessity of precision in language, and the human need for story as a method of transmitting culture, ideas, and understanding. He has been published in The Mad Poets Review, New Voices in American Poetry, and the Poetry Ink 20 th Anniversary Anthology. He has an undergraduate degree from West Chester University, a Master’s degree from Gratz College, and teaches English in the West Chester Area School District. He has held an Advisory Board seat for West Chester University’s Writing Zones program and currently is an Advisory Board member for The Mad Poets Society, one of the Philadelphia Region’s largest poetry groups. He performs music on a regular basis with two bands and hosts a poetry series in West Chester called ”Living on Luck” for The Mad Poets Society.